re: Macau

Part two of my guided adventure.

Arriving at the Ruins of St. Paul was a little underwhelming, although I have a tendency to imagine things much bigger than they usually are, so don’t be dissuaded from my thoughts. Somewhat surviving three fires, it is still quite a magnificent structure to visit and marvel at its determination to remain standing throughout such unfortunate circumstances. Since we arrived around 5/6pm, the site itself was incredibly crowded, making it difficult to get a photograph without someone in the background. Instead, we took advantage of the remaining sun and relaxed on the steps with a cup of milk tea and grass jelly before heading off to the next location.

To be truthful, I was actually pretty amazed with The Venetian. There’s a certain charm to all its artificial beauty and it was fun to see what is basically a giant shopping centre structured in this way. There are real, working gondolas equipped with gondoliers to explore its artificial canals, but which we skipped on account of the huge queue and limited time we had there. A very quick breeze around the shops and a visit to Lord Stow’s for their famous Portuguese egg tart (delicious, but a little too greasy) was pretty much all we had time for before we headed back to the port to try and get an earlier ferry back.

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If you find yourself with a return ticket far later than you wanted to stay on Macau, you are able to wait in a reserve queue for an earlier ferry. At the front of this queue, it’s very likely you’ll be admitted on board! We were thwarted by huge reserve queues for earlier ferries, so ended up taking the ferry back at the original time. It’s also worth noting that you can take the ferry back to either Hong Kong Island, or Kowloon, depending on which is more convenient for you! (The ferry does not dock only in Kowloon as my friend Sandy adamantly insisted).

Although it’s only an hour from Hong Kong to Macau, I’d like to return and stay for a night or two to fully explore the city and nightlife. While the private tour was great in allowing us to see the main sights for that day, we really didn’t have much freedom to just walk around and discover sights for ourselves. I’d love to go back and walk around Macau’s old town as well as walk its strip of famous casinos in the evenings!

re: China pt. 3

Finally making it to Zhangjiajie!

Boarding our next sleeper train made me a little anxious since we could only book a hard sleeper (=6 people) and my paranoid, cynical mind provided me with visions of having my most important possessions stolen away while I slept. Of course, this didn’t happen and the people we ended up sharing the cabin with were exceedingly lovely and friendly despite the language barrier between us! Using the little Mandarin still retained in my memory, I was able to communicate some basic things such as where we were from, where we were going etc to the first two people we met. Luckily another girl staying in our cabin could speak a little English and was able to translate the non-basic conversations. Apparently they were impressed that we were tackling China on our own and I think travelling as (now) two girls definitely made people more sympathetic and accommodating towards us.

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Before getting to Zhangjiajie, we had to transfer at Changsha and thought it would be nice to spend the day there, getting another sleeper train in the evening. Despite battling illness, we ventured off to Juzi Island, which helped to kill some time and at the end got to see a giant statue of Chairman Mao Zedong looking like he’d been plucked off the cover of a cheesy romance novel. Feeling that we clocked in enough sightseeing in Changsha, or at least attempted to, we headed back to the train station to camp out in a restaurant (McDonald’s, don’t judge) and recuperate. We were glad to eventually catch the train and woke up to the idyllic landscape of Hunan province, serving as a lovely prelude to the sights ahead!

Expecting a quaint little village that can easily be navigated, Zhangjiajie was not at all what I was expecting. Like the rest of China, it’s gigantic! Although less built up and developed than major cities, there are distinct signs of expansion. Wulingyuan, the area where we stayed, would definitely be a completely different town in a couple of years. More hotels, restaurants and shops are opening to cash in on the huge boom in tourism and even inside the National Park lays a McDonalds and KFC. A little disheartening but moving on! It was surreal to standing inside the park, eclipsed by its famous natural pillars and on the first day we took an elevator to the top of the mountains and hiked back down. The next day, we foolishly hiked UP (bad idea) to take the cable car down through the mountains. Never mind Avatar, Jurassic Park vibes were strongly felt; in fact I wouldn’t have been surprised if a dinosaur did pop out. Zhangjiajie is well developed to accommodate its visitors, with shuttle buses taking tourists to different check points on the map and stalls selling food and drink along hiking routes through the mountains. Unfortunately we could only stay here for 2 days, so were unable to visit Tianmen Mountain and other parts of the area, but this was the perfect way to end our trip – leaving us content but longing to return!

re: China pt. 3

The battle against the cold.

With the Beijing section of the trip behind us, we were on sleeper trains every other night, spending around 2 days in each city before heading to the next destination. So arriving in Xi’an, we wasted no time in dropping off our bags at the hostel and catching the bus to the site of the Terracotta Army! Skipping past the tour guides milling around the entrance and opting for an audio guide instead, we made our way to Pit 1. I was fearful of being underwhelmed, but it was absolutely spectacular to view the army in real life! The excavation site is massive and it was fascinating to walk around and observe the tiny differences in detail between each soldier. Pit 2 and 3 are much smaller, but offers terracotta horses and a little museum exhibit explaining distinctions between the soldiers. Finishing our visit with a final look in Pit 1, we had lunch in a noodle restaurant nearby before catching the bus back into the city. To make the most of our visit to Xi’an, we headed over to the Bell Tower, which we observed from outside, and then to the Drum Tower… also observed from the outside. If we had more time, I would have definitely entered the Drum Tower, if only to hit the huge drums! The Muslim Quarter was a road over and packed full of food stalls and restaurants to try!

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Sitting down in a restaurant, I ordered what I thought was a noodle soup dish, but was given a bowl containing two pieces of hard undercooked pita bread. Was this some sort of accompaniment to my main meal? Sensing my confusion, the waiters motioned that I had to break the bread. (???) So now I had 4 pieces of broken pita bread. (???) Finally a lady came to the table to demonstrate that the whole thing needed to be broken down into little pieces. Following her actions, I hoped she would see that I had understood and stop, but she continued breaking bread and in attempt to be helpful, so did my friends. The four of us, concentrated on tearing bread made such a hilarious scene that even the waiters were laughing! After all these hands touching the bulk ingredient of my meal, it was whisked away into the kitchen to be cooked in a spicy sauce, with some actual vermicelli noodles thrown in. While the flavours of the dish were nice, the texture of the pita bread soaking up the sauce wasn’t exactly to my taste and I guiltily left most of the bowl uneaten. Making a swift exit out of the restaurant, we roamed the market searching for something more appetising to eat. There’s a yoghurt drink that’s everywhere in China and which I now regret not buying more of since the jar also doubles as a cute little souvenir!

Our last day in Xi’an, we went to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda where it was so cold it started snowing. To escape, we headed into a coffee shop to warm up and watched the fountain show opposite before saying goodbye to Astrid who had to catch a flight back to Hong Kong! This left my friend Sandy and I to wander around the area, including the Shaanxi Museum (free entry!) until it was time to catch our next sleeper train! Apologies if the writing sounds a bit rushed, but let’s just say it’s purposefully done to reflect the nature of this little inter-railing trip around China (heh). Stay posted for the final instalment!

re: China pt. 1

The Great Tour of China begins!

Another reading week and another excuse to travel! This time my friends and I ventured off to spend 9 days travelling around China, starting from Beijing and working our way back down to Hong Kong via train. Having heard stories from friends about being pick-pocketed and warnings of abduction via an overdramatic dad and grandma, unsurprisingly I was very apprehensive about the trip. Not knowing much of the language was also very unsettling for me, which is strange considering that I was pretty nonplussed about travelling to Japan knowing zero Japanese. I think living in Hong Kong can make it hard to ignore the anti-Mainland China sentiments, whether it’s against the Chinese government or the influx of Mainland nationals. Certainly, this did bias my view of China and despite how excited I was to visit its sights and experience its culture, I couldn’t ignore the vulnerability I felt as a foreigner. Where Japanese culture is held in high regard as being polite and hospitable, Chinese culture seems seemed to me a little cold and exploitive. But travelling China and being able to interact with the locals, I have discovered the complete opposite! The people I encountered were so friendly, helpful and generous, it has changed how I view the country and its people, putting me much more at ease with visiting again in the future.
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Beijing

First impressions? Gigantic! Everything from the roads, buildings and railway stations were bigger than I had anticipated and I could never get over how spacious the city is after being accustomed to the tight confines of Hong Kong. During our time here, we were able to visit Wangfujing Night Market, which was full of street food and where my roommate Astrid fulfilled her lifelong ambition of eating scorpions! Living to tell the tale, the next day we visited the Great Wall – Mutianyu section, which research told me was the best part to visit for great views without the competition of other tourists. Touring the wall felt so surreal! It was strange to be walking on this piece of history I’ve only seen in pictures before. Its sheer size and spread was breathtaking and the hike up its many stairs was enough to keep us warm against the cold. Passing watchtower 23, we were able to access the older part of the wall, which was the most interesting to see and also less littered with tourists. Talking about litter, it was really sad to see so many discarded bottles along the wall! Being granted such an opportunity to actually walk along this magnificent monument as opposed to viewing it from behind a barrier, it’s extraordinary disrespectful and selfish to throw your rubbish away so carelessly! I read a really great article recently about the negative impacts of tourism, which has made me more conscious of my responsibilities as a traveller and is something I hope is promoted more as it becomes increasingly easier for people to travel. (Srsly, check it out guys).

Moving on, we visited Hongqiao Pearl Market, which apart from the obviously huge offering of pearls, was pretty much like any other market selling merchandise for the tourists. After, we ate at a hotpot restaurant nearby that was astoundingly cheap (58 RMB) for how much food was given to us. Our final day in Beijing, we hoped to visit the Forbidden City, but found it was closed on Monday (what cruel fate)! Taking the subway to Tiananmen Square for a quick look, we were swept up by the one-way system and ended up at the Palace Museum. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to go in, but another reason to return to Beijing at least! Instead, we met up with a friend (Alice!) for lunch and together went to the 798-art zone. Like the rest of Beijing, this place is HUGE and I could easily spend the whole day there exploring. As if people didn’t hate Monday enough, many of the art galleries were closed on this day but there was plenty open to keep us occupied nonetheless! With a train to catch, we were invited back to Alice’s house for a quick cup(s) of tea and were generously laden with snacks for the train journey as well as lift to the train station (on the way we were able to catch a glimpse of the Bird’s Nest Stadium – points for travelling efficiency!).

Arriving at the train station was overwhelming, again due to it’s sheer size and the amount of people travelling through. Major train stations in China are a world away from the ones I’ve experienced in Europe and so are its travellers! Here, you can observe a funny mix of local travellers, diverse in age, appearance and SES. Waiting rooms for trains are packed with people waiting to board, camped out in any space of floor available. They’re noisy and dirty with fruit peels and nutshells on the floor, but it all added to the colour and atmosphere of the experience! Eventually boarding the train, we were surprised by how many westerners were on board, later finding out our cabin mate for the night, a friendly Chinese man named Jean was leading the tour of 47! We had opted for the soft sleeper (4 people per cabin), pleasantly finding them to be comfortable enough for our needs and so, with a not so bad start to our trip; we were on our way to the next destination, Xi’an! Workload dependent, my next post on Xi’an should be up this time next week, stay tuned for part 2!